Mary Sue Goes Mainstream

A Lord of the Rings discussion in the forum got me thinking about a shortcut certain male filmmakers try to take in presenting strong women, and why they don’t satisfy us. It’s a technique that’s more common to science fiction and fantasy than other genres, but it is used elsewhere.

It’s a really simple formula: make the woman perfect. And the reasons why it doesn’t work are equally simple.

Imagine you’re a male writer/director, and you genuinely like and respect women. But, like most people, you’re not always sure you really understand the opposite sex. Sometimes you offend women without meaning to, and you’re never sure whether they’re being oversensitive, or you’ve got chauvinistic baggage you’re not aware of. You want to do the right thing with your female characters, but you’re not sure how.

You keep hearing “there are no strong women out there”. You think, okay – I know what to do.

You make your lead woman a queen or ruler of some sort. You also give her combat skills that would scare the crap out of a well-trained Army grunt. You give her several PhD’s, or levels of Great Poobah Wizard mastery, as appropriate to your story’s setting. You also make her really pretty. And all the males fall into a beatific state of blissful true love with her – not lust, but spiritual, courtly love and devotion. And they usually end up dying for her, too, which you figure is really flattering.

You’ve just fallen victim to one of the classic blunders in screenwriting: never expect the audience to sympathize with a character who starts out perfect. Characters need to be changed by the story in order for the audience to be affected by it. Also, we have to feel them struggling, or else we think it was no challenge for them. If you start out with a Perfect, Strong, Powerful Woman, what’s she going to grow into being? God?

In fan fiction – stories that fans write about characters from books, movies, etc. – a perfect female character is called a Mary Sue, and anyone writing Mary Sues soon learns not to, on penalty of harsh criticism from all the other fans. Mary Sues are perfect, and know everything, and save the day, and get all the guys. They are, in short, a female author’s way of projecting her idealized self into the middle of her favorite characters’ world.

But in recent years, they’ve also become the male filmmaker’s shortcut to “strong female character”. And while at first, a lot of women seemed to be taken in – at least Mary Sue isn’t a hair-twirling bimbo – it’s become almost as disstressing to us as the bimbo stereotype.

The original Star Wars trilogy provides such a great example. Luke Skywalker loses his aunt and uncle, has to leave home, loses his Jedi mentor, nearly dies in a blizzard, undergoes the rigors (physical, emotional and spiritual) of Jedi training and loses a hand – and that’s just in the first two films. Is he affected? Good heavens, yes! He’s not quite the same person in any of the three films, because in each one, he is changed.

Conversely, Leia Organa – a perfect Mary Sue, tempered only by the humanity and sparks in Carrie Fisher’s performance – only seems to change in response to falling in love. The irony here is that Leia actually has quite a few tragedies to absorb, just as Luke did: her home planet is blown to bits with all its inhabitants, including her family. She’s a prisoner on the Death Star, interrogated and tortured. She loses people right and left, and yet… do we get an ounce of screen time devoted to how she’s affected? She’s pretty much the same mouthy tough girl all the way through.

Luke gets his hand chopped off. It’s gross, it’s fairly traumatic for the audience, let alone the character, and his response is one of abject terror, fear, shock. We’re right there with him. Leia’s tragedies, conversely, are kept clean and somewhat abstract. Alderaan blows up – out there. Leia looks upset, but she seems fine in the next scene, so we figure maybe she just didn’t need that planet anymore. No biggie! Leia’s interrogation and torture are implied, but not seen. No sign of bruises, scrapes or even dirt on her dress, and her makeup and hair are still smokin’, so we’re really not sure how bad that torture was. Maybe Vader just used harsh language, and she filed her nails and ignored him. She’s probably fine.

We can surmise that – off-screen – these tragedies changed her. We can let our imaginations run wild and imagine just what the torture on the Death Star may have entailed. We can imagine that with the loss of her homeworld, something in her died, even though she hid it really, really well. Maybe we can even imagine that some of her lines or actions in later movies reflected said imaginary changes.

But the bottom line is, the filmmaker doesn’t want to go there with a female, and the impression we’re left with is that all this tragedy is a normal day for Leia. I don’t think the motives are necessarily misogynistic: I suspect some men just can’t stomach the idea of a female going through stuff like that. They want to be realistic, but they don’t want to show it. They don’t even want to let us see the aftermath – the changes in her spirit or personality. It may be nothing more than a misplaced protective instinct. Or it may be social conditioning regarding what’s ladylike and what’s not. Or they may be afraid people will think they’re implying that these things should happen to women.

I’m compiling a list of examples of females who are not Mary Sues – who go through a palpable tragedy, whose feelings we’re allowed to share, and who have to rise to the challenge in order to make it. If you think of someone, please leave a comment – or better yet, write an article on how she’s not a Mary Sue. I’m going to be posting some articles on this in the near future.

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